Keith Gilmore arrived at Illinois from Cincinnati just four months ago. The process of acclimating to a new school and program has been like a whirlwind for him. He first helped finish up recruiting responsibilites prior to the February signing day, and then he's had to learn the Illini defense. But he seems to be enjoying it.
"It's been a little bit of a learning curve. I'm learning the defense, and I'm learning the young men. Everything is going great. It's football, I've got some good players to work with, a great coaching staff.
"Heck, I'm at the University of Illinois and the Big 10. I'm having a ball out here. I have great facilities to work with. The kids are real open and are looking to be coached. I'm looking to coach them."
The players and coach have taught each other a few things.
"The players have been real helpful to me. They know the plays better than I do right now. So I'm basically emphasizing technique and learning it as we go.
"Things are working real well. I'm starting to get acclimated and starting to understand the players and the defense a little bit better. I think our guys have improved every day. We've really started to fly around, read our keys, and play our gaps."
Three starting defensive linemen have graduated, so Gilmore is looking for younger players to take their places.
"The guys are stepping in. They're grateful for the opportunity. They're college football players, and those guys will be fine. They'll step right up and do a good job.
"Things are moving kind of fast for some of the young guys. But one thing I know. No one's afraid. These guys are tough kids. I've just got to get them in the right place and get them to make plays."
Former d-line coach Tom Sims emphasized first step explosion, while Coach Gilmore teaches hands and feet.
"I think that's where it all starts. We always talk about fast hands and fast feet, being able to move in traffic. I spend a lot of time trying to develop hand speed and good foot quickness. And then all the rest of the things will follow if you get those two going."
Among the veterans returning, Antonio James has been seen operating at three different positions. A defensive end by trade, he has played both end positions and a tackle spot at different times.
"He's a senior, and he knows the defense pretty well. He's gonna be our utility guy. He's gonna be the guy we call on when somebody goes down and be the first man in if he's not a starter. We expect great things from him this year."
"Physically, those guys have got what it takes. They have good size and good athleticism. They've just got to learn to play at this level, use their hands and be consistent. Both Mercilus and Foster will be good players, but there are some growing pains they'll have to go through. I'm sure they'll be good players as we progress."
With only a few spring practices under his belt, Gilmore is still in the evaluation process. But he is beginning to form some opinions as to the potential of the group.
"It's still a little early yet, but these guys are good run players. They can stop the run. I think I've got a couple guys that can rush the passer as well.
"Athletically, we are as good as anybody around. So it's up to me to get them coached and get them to perform on Saturdays."